Aviatrix Jackie Cochran is the most fascinating woman you’ve never heard of

Cochran ‘was a huge force in aviation,’ space historian and author Amy Shira-Teitel says

Jacqueline Cochran was a record-breaking aviatrix, entrepreneur and political mover and shaker who was close enough with President Lyndon B. Johnson that he refused to let her call him Mr. President.

Yet Cochran’s legacy as the first woman to break the sound barrier in 1953 and her role in the Mercury 13 women astronaut testing program rarely gets a mention.

Somehow, this businesswoman and pilot become a footnote in history, which befuddled space historian and author Amy Shira-Teitel.

“I can’t believe I never heard of her,” Shira-Teitel said. “She led the women’s Air Force service pilots in the second World War, was the first woman to fly to the sound barrier, saved LBJ’s life one day, was friends with multiple presidents, was just a huge force in aviation, and held more records than any pilot male or female, the world over, when she died in 1980.”

Shira-Teitel joined WKMG’s “Space Curious” podcast to talk about the supposed clash between two female pilots who ultimately wanted the same thing and Cochran’s legacy as the first woman to break the sound barrier.

Cochran was also an advocate for women in spaceflight when the world was focused on the space race between America and Russia -- but even that part of her legacy has been muddled over the years.

During a July 1962 Congressional subcommittee hearing, congressmen heard from Cochran and Jerri Cobb, a pilot who was considered to be the first American astronaut candidate, to investigate the future role of women in space.

“We women pilots who want to be part of the research and participation in space exploration are not trying to join a battle of the sexes,” Cobb told the subcommittee members. “As pilots, we fly and share mutual respect with male pilots in the, primarily, man’s world of aviation. We seek only a place in our nation’s space future without discrimination.”

Following Cobb’s testimony, the subcommittee heard from another accomplished female pilot.

“And then this other pilot, Jackie Cochran, comes in out of nowhere and says that women shouldn’t fly in space. And I was like, ‘That doesn’t seem right. That doesn’t line up to me,’” Shira-Teitel said.

On May 18, 1953, Jacqueline Cochran became the first woman to fly faster than the speed of sound. The aviatrix, entrepreneur and political mover and shaker died in 1980. (Image credit: National Air and Space Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution) (WKMG 2021)

Based on her experience in high-speed precision flying and other accolades, Cochran said she would like to go to space but then said, “I do not feel that I have been the subject of any discrimination.”

When the hearing was over, news media coverage implied Cochran was against having women in the space program, but in truth, her story and that of the Mercury 13 is much more complicated.

“Jackie is the one who’s been breaking down barriers for women since she started flying in the ’30s,” Shira-Teitel said. “She knew how to play the system and play the game. And she knew that going up and just forcing your way into a program doesn’t get things done. You have to play the system.”

During her testimony, Cochran said there simply were not enough findings to compare how a woman would fare in the space environment, but she said she believed they would prove to be as fit as men for spaceflight.

Shira-Teitel’s book, “Fighting for Space,” is a deep dive on Cochran and the other women who were breaking down barriers during the early days of the space program.

“Space Curious” is a podcast from WKMG and Graham Media Group that answers your intergalactic questions. Hosted by space reporter Emilee Speck, each episode is designed to inspire everyone, from the space curious to the space fanatics. Questions for the podcast can be submitted here.

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